If you’ve ever eaten a red velvet cupcake or bright red gummy bears, you’ve probably consumed food dye.
Food dye enhances the natural coloring of foods, making red-dyed food in particular look more appetizing. Dye also helps prevent color fading from light or heat exposure.
Turns out, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a total of nine food dyes that U.S. manufacturers can use to enhance the color of foods, including Red Dye No. 40 (also called red #40 or Allura Red AC) and Red Dye No. 3. Both are artificial dyes used primarily in processed foods.
Why are people concerned about red dye, though?
Food dyes are rigorously tested by the FDA prior to use, but some research suggests there may be potential health concerns regarding foods with red dye. So far, though, the evidence is inconclusive — studies have only found possible negative health effects in animals, not humans.
Here, learn what foods have red dye, along with the safety and science behind this additive.
Foods That Contain Red Dye
What foods have Red Dye No. 40 or Red Dye No. 3?
Foods that contain either red dye have to fit into one of the following categories to be sold in the U.S.:
- Dairy products
The FDA also states that any food with red dye must include it in the ingredient list. However, the FDA does not regulate how much artificial food coloring can be used in products.
Here’s a list of foods with red dye:
Some breakfast cereals (typically those marketed toward children) have food dyes in them, including:
Some breakfast bars and processed oatmeal with fruit will contain food dyes, too.
2. Baked Goods and Pastries
Baked goods like pie filling, cake mix (especially red velvet mix), breads, cookies and cake frosting may have red dye in them to make them look red or pink in appearance. This is especially true if the product is berry-flavored.
Red food dye can be found in condiments like ketchup, barbecue sauce and sometimes mustard (yellow and red food dye mixed together).
Even peanut butter-flavored foods may contain a small amount of red and yellow dye mixed together to create a golden color.
Some pickle brands also have trace amounts of red food dye to help give them their yellow-green coloring.
4. Certain Packaged Fruits and Fruit Snacks
Gummies, fruit-flavored candies, Jell-O and canned or dried fruits may often contain food dye to lend color. In fact, maraschino cherries are made with Red Dye No. 40, along with some puddings and colored marshmallows.
Some chocolate candies that contain fruit (like cherries, for example), may contain red dye to help with coloring. Many of the above products also contain gelatin.
5. Dairy Products and Frozen Desserts
Some strawberry and cherry ice cream, frozen yogurt and popsicles contain red food dye to make them more colorful. Strawberry-, raspberry- or other berry-flavored milk and yogurt may also contain dyes.
6. Sports Drinks and Flavored Drink Mixes
Often, sports drinks like Gatorade will contain red dye, along with drink mixes like Kool-Aid and energy drink varieties. Some nutritional shakes may also contain red dye.
Some protein powders and pre-workout mixes may also have trace amounts of red food dye.
Soft drinks, especially those with cherry, strawberry or raspberry flavoring, may contain some dyes. Some orange soda, such as Crush, may also contain red dye.
Certain brands of iced tea and juice may also contain small amounts of red dye for coloring, such as Brisk Raspberry Iced Tea.
Chips and crackers that contain nacho or cheese flavoring may have red dye, including Doritos and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Other potato and corn chips that contain spice may also have some red dye, including Flamin’ Hot Fritos.
9. Meat and Vegetarian Products
Sausage casing will sometimes have red dye, along with vegetarian meat products to make them look more realistic — mainly vegetarian bacon.
10. Some Over-the-Counter Medications
While Red Dye No. 3 is not allowed to be included in medications and cosmetics, Red No. 40 can be found in trace amounts of over-the-counter medications and vitamins to give coloring. It’s sometimes found in vitamin gummies as well as medications like Advil or Tylenol, including Children’s Tylenol and Children’s Motrin.
Other names for Red Dye No. 40 you’ll find on nutrition labels include Red 40, Red 40 lake, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Red No. 40 aluminum lake, Allura red AC, CI Food Red 17, INS No. 129 and E129. Other names for Red Dye No. 3 include FD&C Red No. 3 and Red Dye 3, per Consumer Reports.
What Is Red Dye Made Out Of?
The red dye in food can come from natural or synthetic ingredients. According to the American Chemical Society (ACS), artificial food dyes used to come from coal.
Now, manufacturers derive them from petroleum, which are rigorously tested before being added to food products, per the ACS.
According to the Vegetarian Journal’s Guide to Food Ingredients, Red 40 is vegan in most cases. Still, eating red-dyed foods may not be suitable for environmental vegans trying to avoid petroleum-based products.
If you are trying to avoid red dyes in food, look for the USDA Organic seal on food labels. To receive this seal, foods cannot contain synthetic dyes.
Natural Alternatives to Red Dye
Now, some food manufacturers are trying to dye food naturally, from plant and animal sources. These alternatives include the following, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- Beet juice
- Beta-carotene (a pigment found in plants)
- Blueberry juice
- Cherries or cherry juice
- Cranberries or cranberry juice
- Dried hibiscus flowers
- Grape juice
- Pomegranate juice
While most red dyes are considered safe by the FDA, some food colorings are banned in other parts of the world like Europe. Red No. 3 has been banned in cosmetics and certain medications in the U.S., per the FDA.
Why? Red No. 3 contains a substance called p-Cresidine, which is likely to be a carcinogen, or cancer-causing chemical, based on findings from animal research, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Red 40 also contains benzene, a known cancer-causing substance, per the Cleveland Clinic.
And a comprehensive review in the September 2012 issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health found that this coloring often contains carcinogens.
There’s also a July 2012 article in Neurotherapeutics that notes a potential association with red dye consumption and a higher number of children with ADHD behaviors. However, much more research needs to be done to determine a causal effect.
Despite this, the U.S. still consumed more than 20 milligrams of Red Dye 40 per capita per day in 2010, which is significantly higher than consumption rates in past years, per a September 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Pediatrics.
Certainly, more research on the health dangers of red dye 40 needs to be done.
Who Should Avoid Red Dye?
If you’re getting a medical procedure done soon, such as a colonoscopy, your doctor may instruct you to avoid red dye 40 foods and drinks before your procedure. This means, while you can eat clear liquids and some forms of gelatin, you should stay away from colored drinks and certain flavors of Jell-O.
Some people are also sensitive to food dyes such as Red No. 40 and may experience a variety of allergic reactions, such as rash and difficulty concentrating, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And while some people think that red food dye causes stomachaches, this is unlikely, even if you have an allergy or intolerance to the ingredient.
If you need to keep a list of foods with Red Dye 40 handy, food labels are your best friend. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires manufacturers to list additives such as Red 40 on food labels.
Learning which foods contain Red Dye No. 40 and Red No. 3 may simply require scanning the labels of everything you purchase — even unexpected foods like pizza or foods marketed as “healthy,” like fiber bars and oatmeal with fruit.